I think I've read the entire Grisham fictional oeuvre now from A Time to Kill through The Firm and The Brethren and on to the latest, Playing for Pizza. I even read (and really enjoyed) Skipping Christmas. Some are better than others, obviously, but they are uniformly good.
Grisham writes so beautifully, so simply, with such touch, control and command of language that he allows aspirant thriller writers to be fooled into believing that this writing malarkey is easy. Anyone can do it. The legal thrillers, in particular, are effortless reads: fantastic, sophisticated plots crammed full of believable, engaging characters; corkscrews of twists and turns; crackling dialogue and brooding atmosphere; and often they can be clever, thought-provoking morality plays to boot, full of simple, but often crushing observations on the nature of officialdom (and human nature), whether it be corrupt or virtuous, cowardly or valiant.
And more often than not, I simply don't notice. So good and pacy are the stories they kidnap you for the duration of the read and the rest of it slides by, assumed as a given, taken on trust.
And so it requires a step back to notice the brilliance of all this. For me that moment arrives when Grisham glides off piste. Most recently this occurred with The Innocent Man, the extraordinary true story of a desperately depressing miscarriage of justice.
And again this week with Playing for Pizza, a thoroughly charming tale of a washed-up American football player who is cast off the by the NFL after the 11 most pathetic minutes ever played by any quarterback anywhere and finds himself playing for a small stipend and a tiny Fiat for the might Parma Panthers in Italy.
Grisham has football previous. His terrific 2003 novel Bleachers found a group of former high school players reunited following the death of their legendary coach, and playing out the soundtracks of their youth while agonising over the missteps that followed.
Like Bleachers, Playing for Pizza is a story of broken dreams, but only to a limited extent. It is more a voyage of discovery, of new dreams and new lives.
Rick Dockery, the quarterback in question, is hounded out of Cleveland after his heroically inept final 11 minutes in the NFL - as a third string QB - costs the Browns their best ever chance of a first Superbowl. His beleaguered agent is laughed off the phone by alternative employers until a chance presents itself for Rick to become the new QB of the Parma Panthers.
Fleeing a mooted paternity suit from a Browns cheerleader, Rick reluctantly takes flight for Parma, where he is instantly welcomed as the messiah by his new team of enthusiastic amateurs; the real NFL QB who can take them to the promised land of a first Italian Superbowl.
Rick cautiously fumbles his way into La Dolce Vita. First through food, and the extraordinary hospitality of his hosts. He then has his head turned by the considerable charms of Italian womanhood, and ultimately even by opera.
This tale of the American abroad is beautifully handled by Grisham, whose admiration for Italians, their culture and their way of life shines through every page. For those who like their football, there is plenty of it, also lovingly described. For those who don't care for the pigskin, it really doesn't matter, there's too much life and laughter in this book to worry about the odd page turned over to quick slants, third downs and field goals.
And right there in the middle are Grisham's startling and deceptively simple observations on human nature.
It's a little gem, bursting with beauty, optimism and sunshine, that rattles along to a dramatic conclusion. I commend it to all.